Not long ago Pamela Jones would have been told to get her affairs in order and sent home to die.

Instead she has a future and is looking forward to seeing her daughter graduate and retiring and travelling with her husband.

The 54-year-old is one of 223 New Zealanders who received the immunotherapy drug Keytruda in the first five months it was funded by Pharmac.

Four years ago doctors found melanoma deposits when the Auckland woman had a mole cut out of her back.

She had surgery to have it all removed but a few months later she noticed blue dots around her groin area.


The cancer had spread.

She was diagnosed with stage three BRAF+ melanoma: it was inoperable.

"I just remember thinking, 'this is really serious'. I didn't realise how quickly cancer could spread," Jones said.

"If you weren't scared you wouldn't be normal. It is frightening but you learn how to handle it. You have to make light of it."

Jones was lucky. There was a new drug being used to treat her type of cancer, although trials showed it didn't work forever. For most people the cancer started coming back about 10 months in.

She was able to get the drug, Dabrafenib, on compassionate grounds meaning she did not have to find the $21,000 a month it would usually cost.

Within a couple of months the blue dots were gone. She passed the 10-month milestone without a problem and was starting to wonder if perhaps it was a cure for her.

It worked for her for two years.


Then in January 2016, she hit her head causing a lump to come up. She was due for another CT scan so decided to get her head looked at and the scan done at the same time.

It came back clear but her doctor insisted on an MRI.

It showed she had a 15mm brain tumour and a scattering of melanoma deposits throughout her brain.

Jones said the news came as a shock but she was buoyed by the fact there was still hope in the form of new immunotherapy drug Keytruda.

After two weeks of radiation therapy she was put on the drug.

One year and 18 infusions in, her situation looks promising. The tumour has shrunk to 3mm in size.

"I've been extremely lucky. I feel great," she said. "I'm really hoping it will be gone at the next scan."

Jones said the $4 million cost of funding the first four months of Keytruda was worth it.

"We're just only too delighted that we've got hope and it's working," she said. "For the people who it works for, it works really well."

She said she also believed Dabrafenib should be publically funded.

Many melanoma patients would benefit from being on Dabrafenib for a few months because it would reduce the amount of cancer in their body before they were put on to Keytruda, she said.

"It works for a lot of people. It works very, very quickly ...They'd see a lot more people survive."

Pharmac director of operations Sarah Fitt told the Herald two funding applications for Dabrafenib had been received.

Clinical advice recommended it be declined because of the associated toxicity, uncertainty regarding magnitude and duration of benefit, the high cost, and recent funding of drugs such as Keytruda.